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Can you imagine having no satellite GPS system to let you know within a metre where you are on the high seas? Francis Drake simply used his immense navigation skills, ship’s compass, the speed of the ship - visually assessed by using a multi-knotted rope, his intuition, dead reckoning and limitless courage, to know where he was when he circumnavigated the world between 1577 and 1580.

This map shows his voyage.

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Drake was born around 1539 – his exact birthday in unknown - but when he grew up he became a master sailor. On the high seas he was basically an English pirate, but one that was licensed by his queen, Elizabeth I, to be a privateer. This meant he was legally (by English law) to plunder as much gold, silver and valuables for her, from the Spanish transporting their vast fortunes from Nombre de Dios, on the isthmus of Panama, to Seville in Spain. For fourteen years, from 1556, 40 MILLION ducats of silver were transported to Spain, via a bi-annual convoy of lumbering and extremely vulnerable galleon transports.


In 1576, Drake built this ship for himself - the Pelican or Golden Hinde, a pocket-sized ship of 150 tons. On 15 November 1577, he set sail in her to circle the world. He began his incredible adventure by sailing south to Africa, then on to pass through the Magellan Straits to enter the Pacific Ocean.

Whilst on his journey, Drake amassed a huge fortune in plundered silver, gold and other valuables from Spanish ships. His wealth had to be (as usual) reluctantly shared with his queen. However, she was quite happy to receive from him, enough gold and silver to swell her coffers to run England for more than a year! Drake, being Drake, pocketed a sizeable portion of the stolen loot, enabling him to live extremely well.

After his sailing and wealth accumulating successes, his fame in England grew exponentially, which finally culminated in his queen knighting him in April, 1581.

Enjoying his wealth and status, Drake bought a large house and estate at Buckland Abbey, within the county of Devon; the house had been an abbey church, which had succumbed to Henry VIII’s rampage through the monasteries and abbeys of England between 1536 and 1541. The building had been ‘modernised’ by the previous owner, with three new floors inserted into the interior, after both transepts were demolished. Drake lived there with his second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham.

In 1588 the Spanish sent a huge fleet to invade and take over England. The battle between the Spanish Armada and the English navy lasted for over a week along the English Channel, finally ending at a place called Gravelines, which, at that time, was in Flanders.



This ambitious crusade by King Philip II of Spain was a total disaster, since the colossal sailing force that left from Lisbon at the end of May, 1588, failed in it's objective to invade and take over England.

However, the initial sailing to England can be seen as a huge success, considering the Armada left Portugal with a hotch-potch of many ship designs, having huge differences in displacement tonnage, ranging from 100 to 1,000 tons. The commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, managed to cross the treacherous Bay of Biscay, and keep a disciplined formation of the remaining 120 ships along the English Channel.


Below Dartmouth in Devon, the Duke lost one ship - not through battle, but by collision with other smaller vessels… and this… is when the Nuestra Señora del Rosario and its capture by Sir Francis Drake from Don Pedro de Valdés, entered my story.

This picture shows the capitulation of Valdés, offering his sword to Sir Francis Drake, on board the Rosario.


Whilst the Spanish Armada fleet passed Plymouth, Dartmouth, Portland Bill and approached the Isle of Wight, the English fleet, comprising much smaller, faster and superior cannoned vessels, harried it, but without much effect.

After those skirmishes, the Armada was left alone; it sailed on to Calais hoping to combine with and escort across the channel, a (what was to be a non-existent) large force of troops, stores and their invasion barges, commanded by the Duke of Parma.

However, with the Spanish anchored at Calais Sounds, the English sent fire ships into the Armada under the cover of the evening darkness. Due to this action, the subsequent successful withdrawal manoeuvres swiftly organised by Medina Sidonia, moved his fleet out to sea. However, due to unfavourable tides, sandbanks and wind, the fleet was scattered across the sea, unable to find suitable anchorage.

At daylight, the biggest battle raged throughout the day between the Armada and English near the coastal village of Gravelines, with the Spanish losing nearly 1,000 killed and 800 wounded.

The changing wind finished the primary aim of the Armada to invade England, causing the fleet to move into the North Sea, and crawl up the east coast of England. After sailing around the top of Scotland, the remaining ships were decimated by ferocious weather down the west coast of Ireland.

Medina Sidonia managed to reach Spain, entering Santander in September with nearly 65 ships, having lost 55, including some of his largest galleons of the Armada. 

The Spanish Armada was an ambitious plan, but ended in failure, however it produced amazing displays of sailing skills from both combatants, especially the Spanish.


The admiral died on his ship, the Defiance, on 28 January 1596 and he was buried at sea, not far from Puerto Bello, or known now as PortoBelo - once a major Spanish port in the 16th-century.

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